Category Archives: Advent and Christmas

1 June: the flight into Egypt

On this day the Coptic Christian Church celebrates the Flight into Egypt of the Holy Family, but our image is from Amsterdam. This plaque once adorned the side of a house called ‘The Flight into Egypt’. The fact that the home owner could pay for it to be erected suggests an established, prosperous household, not a little family of refugees.

I’m sure Joseph will have conserved carefully the gold Jesus was given. They could walk to Egypt, no need to entrust their fate to traffickers with half-rotten boats. Our Coptic picture shows a companion with them, is it a guardian angel?

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25 March: The Annunciation

Gabriel, from Saint Mary’s Church, Wreay, Cumbria.

I came across this poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins at an Advent service at Canterbury Cathedral. Hopkins’ final verse is all the commentary we need. Enjoy a feastday to break up Lent!

Angelus ad virginem

1. Gabriel, from heaven's king 
Sent to the maiden sweet, 
Brought to her blissful tiding 
And fair 'gan her to greet. 
'Hail be thou, full of grace aright! 
For so God's Son, the heaven's light, 
Loves man, that He 
A man will be  and take 
Flesh of thee, maiden bright, 
Mankind free for to make 
Of sin and devil's might.'
2. Gently to him gave answer
The gentle maiden then:
'And in what wise should I bear
Child, that know not man?'
The angel said: 'O dread thee nought.
'Tis through the Holy Ghost that wrought
Shall be this thing whereof tidings I bring:
Lost mankind shall be bought
By thy sweet childbearing,
And back from sorrow brought.'
3. When the maiden understood
And the angel's words had heard,
Mildly, of her own mild mood,
The angel she answered:
'Our Lord His handmaiden, I wis,
I am, that here above us is:
And touching me |fulfilled be | thy saw;
That I, since His will is,
Be, out of nature's law
A maid with mother's bliss.'
4. The angel went away thereon
And parted from her sight
And straightway she conceived a Son
Through th' Holy Ghost His might.
In her was Christ contained anon,
True God, true man, in flesh and bone;
Born of her too 
When time was due; who then
Redeemed us for His own,
And bought us out of pain,
And died for us t'atone.

5. Filled full of charity,
Thou matchless maiden-mother,
Pray for us to him that He
For thy love above other,
Away our sin and guilt should take,
And clean of every stain us make
And heaven's bliss, when our time is to die,
Would give us for thy sake;
With grace to serve him by
Till He us to him take. Amen.

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2 February: Jesus comes to his Temple.

Simeon comes to greet the Holy Family

Today is the Feast of the Presentation of baby Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem, and traditionally the last day of Christmas. It is also known as Candlemas, because candles are lit during the Scripture readings at Mass and sometimes there is a procession with the candles. Here is the Church of England collect for the day. ‘Substance of our flesh’: in other words Jesus was a real human being, not a pretend body inhabited by an angel. Like us in all things but sin.

Almighty and ever-living God, 
clothed in majesty, 
whose beloved Son was this day presented in the Temple, 
in substance of our flesh: 
grant that we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts, 
by your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, 
who is alive and reigns with you, 
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God, 
now and for ever. AMEN

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16 January: Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2022. Introduction, II.

smart

Jerusalem is a powerful symbol for Christians because it is “The City of Peace”, where all humanity was saved and redeemed. But today peace is missing from the city. Even prayer in Jerusalem has become subject to political and military measures. Various parties stake their claim to it and disregard others. Jerusalem was the city of kings, indeed the city that Jesus will enter triumphantly, acclaimed as king (Luke 19:28-44). Naturally the Magi expected to find the newborn king revealed by the star in this royal city.

However, the narrative tells us that, rather than being blessed by the birth of the Saviour king, the whole of
Jerusalem was in tumult, much as it is today. Today, more than ever, the Middle East needs a heavenly light to accompany the people.

In this context Christians are called to seek the new-born king, the king of gentleness, peace and love. But where is the star that leads the way to him? It is the mission of the Church to be the star that lights the way to Christ who is the light of the world. By word and through action the Christian people are called to light the way so that Christ might be revealed, once again, to the nations. Yet divisions dim the light of Christian witness and obscure the way, preventing others from finding their way to Christ. Conversely, Christians united in their worship of Christ, and opening their treasures in an exchange of gifts, become a
sign of the unity that God desires for all of creation.

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15 January, Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2022: Introduction, I.

Bethlehem, c1850.

The week of prayer for Christian Unity 2022 will last from 18 -25 January. this year the prayers and reflections are led by the Churches of the Middle East. In these three days leading to the Week of Prayer, we offer extracts from the Introduction to this important time.

The story of the Magi visiting the Holy Family in Bethlehem is one very familiar to us. Indeed, we have recently celebrated Christmas; the Feast of Incarnation and Epiphany. The Magi have sometimes been seen as a symbol of the world’s diversity – different religions and cultures – that comes to pay homage to the Christ-child. The story might therefore represent the unity of all created that God desires. The Magi travel from far-off countries, and represent diverse cultures, yet they are driven by the same hunger to see and know the new-born king and are gathered into the little house in Bethlehem in the simple act of giving homage.

In this we can find a metaphor for Christian unity: that is, of different Christian peoples drawn together in their common search to recognise Christ, to know him and to worship him and witnessing to wider need for unity and to overcome injustice.

This text has been chosen by the churches of the Middle East, the history of which was, and still is, characterised by conflict and strife, tainted with blood and darkened by injustice and oppression. Since the Palestinian Nakba (the exodus of Palestine’s Arab population during the 1948 war) the region has seen a series of bloody wars and revolutions and the rise of Islamic extremism. The story of the Magi also contains many dark elements, most particularly Herod’s despotic orders to massacre all the children around Bethlehem who were two years old or under (Matt 2:16-18). The cruelty of these narratives resonates with the long history and difficult present of the Middle East.

It was in the Middle East that the Word of God took root and bore fruit: thirty and sixty and one hundredfold. And it was from this East that the apostles set out to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). The Middle East has given thousands of Christian witnesses and thousands of Christian martyrs.

And yet now, the very existence of the small Christian community is threatened as many are driven to seek a more secure and prosperous life elsewhere. Like the light which is the child Jesus, the light of Middle Eastern Christianity is increasingly threatened in these difficult times.

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9 January: The Baptism of Our Lord.

Photograph by CD

John was baptising in the desert of Judea, not in a town centre park, but it was a public event. Crowds of people had come along, some to repent, and to mark their change of direction by approaching the Baptist for immersion in the river, others to enjoy the spectacle of serious fellow citizens emerging from the water out of breath, dripping wet and undignified.

Having attended a few baptisms in my lifetime, I’d say that some things have changed, but the curious observers are still around, often wielding the cameras on their phones. I can’t help feeling that had those devices been around 2000 years ago, many people would have been too busy peering into them to notice the voice from Heaven – or was it a rumble of thunder? My son just showed me a picture of football spectators so busy looking through their phones that they missed the ball going into the corner of the net. Just one teenager is jumping up, arms outstretched, sheer joy on his face.

Last time we were at an event in our local park was the Lady Mayoress’s Carol Service, on the terrace just above the river. Smiles on many faces as far as we could see in the dark. There was even a terrier who tried to join in the singing; he certainly put a smile on Santa’s face! People soon stopped snapping on their phones and joined in the singing.

In the following days, Santa’s two year old grandson kept asking, Grandad, Santa Claus AGAIN! He kept a couple of appointments with the Saint before Christmas, then told the family on Boxing Day, Grandad Santa Claus no more. Santa was not a lasting name for Grandad, but Grandad was a new and lasting name for Will Turnstone.

John the Baptist announced a new name for Jesus, one we still use day by day in the liturgy: the Lamb of God. It is a powerful name: ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.’

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 8 January: It’s behind you!?


Eddie from the Irish Chaplaincy sees us into the New Year. I have to admit that we did not make it to the book launch here in Canterbury, but a copy turned up in my stocking and Mrs T and I are enjoying dipping into it. We reviewed the book earlier. You can find it on line or through local bookshops. Meanwhile, where are my keys? (later: in the very deep pocket of my new coat!)

All yours, Eddie, and thank you.

I don’t know if it’s just me but I seem to spend large chunks of my life looking for things, big and small, and oftentimes searching in completely the wrong places.

How much time and energy and frustration there is bound up with this endless quest: for missing objects (that, when finally located, I realise I maybe don’t even need!); or for contentment or recognition or success or intimacy or whatever.

How many prayers are said in supplication to St Anthony, who, it has to be said, rarely if ever lets me down.

I suspect it’s not just me, and I’ve noticed the ever-increasing use in the media of the acronym FOMO (fear of missing out).

So many people doing so much searching; and, so often, looking in the wrong place. Sometimes we completely miss what might be right in front of us; or, as in the pantomimes, what’s right behind us!

As another Christmas comes and goes I find reassurance in the incongruity of God being revealed where few were expecting it. Many were waiting for a mighty king to come and bring liberation from an occupying force. Who, then, would have been searching for the messiah in Bethlehem, a back-water town on the edge of the Roman empire? And who would have suspected it would have had anything to do with an unmarried couple who were far from home and soon to become refugees? And in a stable? Surely not there! And what of those who did know where to look?

Shepherds, who were often rough hired hands, and who were outcasts in their community because having to be out at all hours meant they were unable to observe all of the rituals of the Jewish faith and who may well have been a bit tipsy due to having a little tot or two to shield them from the cold night. Then three mysterious characters who had followed a star and who turned up with the most unusual, but most fitting gifts.

I’d been invited on January 2nd, on which the feast of the Epiphany was being celebrated, to give a presentation of my book at St Paul’s church in Camden following Mass and a shared meal. It was a motley group of people gathered there which included a couple of regulars from the Irish Centre. The church itself is a rather run down and sorry looking 60s style building, albeit with a lovely, prayerful chapel at one end, but the interior had been transformed for the banquet to come. It is situated at the opposite end of Camden Square to the Centre and I began my talk by explaining how I’d discovered it on my very first day at the Irish Chaplaincy. I was feeling totally overwhelmed after the first morning and went out and strolled in the square and saw a poster advertising a half hour of silent prayer in the chapel every Thursday lunchtime and I knew that all would be well. I went to the prayer in that first week and almost every subsequent week for the next three years, until Covid put a stop to it, and it was an anchor in my week.

There was a good crowd there on the 2nd but although it seemed that the presentation went well I sold hardly any books; which is what I thought I’d gone there for. I was bitterly disappointed. Getting rained on when walking back to the station didn’t help my mood, nor my arm getting sore from carrying my guitar (and the still almost full box of books)! Then early the following morning I saw an email from Judy who organises the silent prayer at St Pauls, and I will treasure her kind words to me:

“We are such a diverse group of people, but everybody was spellbound. The things you say and the way you say them really do affirm human kindness (and God’s kindness to us) and encourage people to notice the life that goes on between them and among them that’s too deep for words. I don’t know how your sales went, but you made a whole lot of people very happy. I hope your journeys from and back to Canterbury went well and that you didn’t get soaked in the afternoon.”

As ever, I had been looking in the wrong place, or seeking the wrong thing; or maybe just completely missing what was right in front of me. I had taken part in a true feast, with lots of people having brought a variety of delicious dishes to share. I had been served an assortment of drinks, including a glass of Irish coffee, which I love. I had spoken to a range of colourful characters. At the end of my presentation, after singing ‘Be Thou my Vision’ I had been asked to sing one of my own songs, and there was a request for “something upbeat”! I did the song I’d once written after a night out in Belfast, ‘Fibber McGees’. And Kilkenny-born Enda got up and did some Irish dancing to the delight of the crowd, and was joined by Funmi who is of Sierra Leone heritage (and who had provided the Irish coffee) and it was one of those little ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ moments.

I doubt that I’ll be able to curtail my endless search for things, and I’m sure I’ll continue to get disappointed and discouraged when I don’t find what I thought I was looking for. But please God I’ll learn one day to discern more clearly the things that are truly worth seeking, and maybe occasionally find something I didn’t even know I was looking for and in a place where I least expected to find it.

PS If you’re not fed up with Christmas songs by now then you might like to listen to one I wrote some years ago: A Stable in Bethlehem

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6 January: Hildegard on Mary.

Mary surrounded by tokens of prayer. Venice.

Mary, O luminous Mother,
Holy healing art!
Eve brought sorrow to the soul,
But you by your holy Son
You pour balm
On death’s wounds and travail.

You have indeed conquered death!

You have established life!

Ask for us life.
Ask for us radiant joy.
Ask us the sweet, delicious ecstasy
That is forever yours.

Hildegard of Bingen
12th Century 

With thanks to Fr Anthony Charlton who shared this. Note that Mary is seen in relation to her Son, and is asked to pray for us, in the words: ‘Ask for us …’ If we can pray for each other, and if we believe in eternal life, we can ask Mary to pray for us.

Ask for us radiant Joy!

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5 January: Christmas in a prison cell II.

Not every prisoner can be as ready to accept the sacrifice of confinement as Bonhoeffer was. Let us us remember them all at Christmas time in this prayer shared with us by a prison chaplain.

We pray for every imprisoned person
who misses their family,
who cannot hold their children
or visit their parents,
who this Christmas will be surrounded not by loved ones
but by inmates who have no way out.
These are people
whose special holiday dinner 
is served on cafeteria trays,
by people who are paid to be there.
We give thanks
that the gift of the Christ-child on Christmas morning
is not controlled by human hands,
not stopped by locks or bars
but poured out by your special grace.
AMEN.

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4 January: Christmas in a prison cell, I.

At Christmas we remember that the light of Jesus Christ shines in the darkness and the darkness has not quenched it …  Let me share part of a letter written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brilliant German theologian and leader of the Confessing Church in the 1930s which opposed Hitler and criticised the mainstream churches for their subservience to the Nazi regime.  Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned in 1943 for his part in a high-level plot to overthrow Hitler.  He was executed in 1945 before Allied troops could release him.

From the Christian point of view there is no special problem about Christmas in a prison cell.  For many people in this building, it will probably be a more genuine occasion than in places where nothing but the name is kept.  That misery, suffering, poverty, loneliness, helplessness and guilt mean something quite different in the eyes of God from what they mean in human judgement, that God will approach where we turn away, that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room in the inn – these are things that a prisoner can understand better than other people; for him they really are glad tidings”.  (Letters and Papers from Prison, London: SCM Press).

Bonhoeffer’s witness shed a principled Christian light on a great evil, and although it cost him his life, his continuing example of living a Christ-like life helps us see the dimensions of Christian faith.  We can be glad because all this world’s evil, pain and limitation has been taken into God’s life, transformed, and redeemed.  After all, Jesus’s birth and infancy are but the beginning of a story that will unfold the depths to which God’s love has to go, and the profound generosity of his self-giving.

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